A sock of sulfur by the door,
And you better not ignore
It before going out in the woods,
Or it’s certain you would
Pick up hitchhikers in the form
Of ticks, chiggers, and no-see-ums.
It really made no difference,
You’d be facing weeks of itching,
And soaking in Calamine lotion,
Epsom salts, bleach, magic potions,
Or anything you could find
To soak in and hope to die.
Chiggers are the worst,
They’re a sentence or evil curse
From the God’s of wooded adventure
Or the demons of dark overtures.
Burrowed just under the softest skin,
Dissolving flesh and turning it to poison.
So, anyway, don’t forget the sulfur,
Before you go stomping through briars.
And be sure to take a shower when you get back
To wash off the ticks and prevent an allergy attack.
And when your done you better be sure,
To thank God for the blessings of nature.
He couldn’t hear the word “hitchhiker”
Without also hearing John Fogerty
And the guilty sounds of the seventies.
And all that made him think of a tall
Girl with gray eyes who terrified him with
Her treks and trysts across the Rockies
And beyond on her own except
For her verve and bravado.
She wasn’t afraid of anything.
She took chances from Sherman to Denver
With no money and just one change of clothes.
Risky for a girl of 18, of course, but
God only knows what trouble she
Left in her wake, and he was
Enthralled, envious, and horrified,
But he listened to every word
She said on her return and became
Worldly through her words alone.
She told him the ways of the world,
And showed him the ways of a woman
With a condescending but caring grace
With only the slightest hint of cruelty.
She laughed at his naïveté, at first,
But gently removed it and did her best to leave
A campsite free from smoldering embers.
I was lucky, he said.
A sexy baby sitter took
My virginity off me before
It became a burden.
I became a man before
I finished being a child.
I knew my way around,
Worldly in the ways of women,
But lost in the wild abandon of boys.
The others were filled with envy.
If only they had had a nanny
With a name like big, fat Fanny!
They could have walked the world
With pride, chest out and shoulders high.
They would have been the rivals of the others,
And the heartbreak of daughters and mothers.
They would have lived on the loose,
The Lucky Ones.
And our brown-eyed boy
Was proud of his conquests.
He was the real wild one—
Drunk and disordered—
The loner untethered to anyone.
Promiscuity is praised in a boy,
And a sad loner has a certain mystique.
He was lucky no one could ever
Tie him down, and he
Tied the knot in the noose himself.
When the police made a routine visit
Next door, they arrived in full-body
Hazmat suits, as unneeded as they
Were insulting. It wasn’t AIDS then;
It was GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Well-educated people
Actually believed just being gay
Would kill you, and the police seemed
To have a database of everyone with
The Gay Plague. Actually, they just had a
Database of their own prejudice and
Paranoia. And we watched in horror
As they spread indignity like butter on
Toast, fear and hatred choking their arteries.
Of my neighbors, Roger went first.
He was already sick when I met him,
And I never had the opportunity to know
Him. Mark was still working, though he had
Some early signs of sarcoma, so his future
Was already written. His partner, Don, appeared
Healthy. He was a landscape designer, responsible
For the most striking gardens of Houston’s
Most prominent residents, a celebrity gardener,
Treated like sewage by Houston’s finest.
When Mark died, his family showed up at Don’s
House to clear out their son’s belongings. They
Gave nothing to their son in life, but took
Everything in his death. Don had a right to nothing
But loss, shame, and seemingly infinite grief.
And Mark’s memorial service was just another
That week. Another loss and another step to an
Inevitable conclusion for the survivors.
That’s how it was, see? Calendars were not
Marked with birthdays, parties, and holiday
Trips. They were filled with funerals, memorials
Medical screenings, blood tests, hospital visits,
Learning the vernacular of T-Cells and viral loads,
And no fucking time left to just sit down and cry.
Grief was a luxury no one could afford, and
Activism was a necessity no one could ignore.
They say the community came together, but it
Was forced together by hatred, fear, and indifference.
When you hear public officials say the solution to AIDS
Is to “shoot the queers,” you bury your friends and lovers,
Cry and scream, and come together to Act Up. We went from
Being gay, lesbian, bi, and trans to being a Queer Nation.
We argued about what words, what language, would work
Best, but we never forgot our common cause: Survival.
In that book, Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre’s
Antoine Roquentin gets kind of freaked
Out just looking at the root of a chestnut tree.
I thought it was pretty weird at first,
Because how can you get through life
If you freak out every time you see a
Tree root or some fool thing like a tree root?
You couldn’t go on, could you? It’d just be
One crisis after another until you went
Insane and did yourself in, but then
I kind of get it. I mean, if you look at
Anything for awhile, it can get you thinking,
And thinking is always the risky part.
Once you start thinking, everything comes
Into question, and you might not even
Be able to tell if a root is real, or you
Might start to think the root is conscious
And is staring at you, or you might start
To wonder if you are real. I mean, you
Could be part of the consciousness of
The root, but it wouldn’t have to be a root,
Either, would it? Any damn thing can send
Your thoughts careering out of control,
And you might just start feeling a little
Overwhelmed. You might feel like you can’t really
Talk to anyone, because you’re not sure whether
They are like you. Maybe they don’t see the same
Colors. Maybe they don’t feel the same feelings.
Maybe you are the only one who knows what
Pain is. Or maybe you’re just a character in their story.
But Sartre said he never felt that kind
Of nausea, and now you think maybe he was
Just an asshole. Maybe he just thought up a
Lot of stupid shit just to make money off
People who were socially anxious like
Roquentin or just anxious generally.
It was all just a joke to Sartre and his
Mescaline addled buddies, but you are
Starting to see things more clearly now.
You’re starting to want to punch that jackass
In the face, and you finally realize
Albert Camus was right about everything.
You can find volumes of information
On how to die, but the materials are
All prepared by interns and trainees.
The true masters on the art of dying
Have all lost interest in our struggles
With mortality and how to be shed of it.
Still, we want as much information as
Possible, so we can be prepared when
The time comes. We hang eagerly on
The words of those who nearly died,
Just so maybe we can have a glimpse
Of what it might be like to cross over.
All this anxiety and all this preparation
Despite the fact that no one has ever
Failed on this particular mission.
Sure, some begin the process with
Different levels of equanimity, but
They all seem restful enough in the end.